As October turns to November and the college football season begins to wind toward a dramatic conclusion, weekends are increasingly filled with matchups between ranked teams. No fewer than five ranked Pac-12 teams will take to the gridiron this weekend, with several more still in contention to win their divisions.
Lost in all that madness is the Cal-Oregon State matchup in Corvallis, Oregon, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night. And though there are no playoff chances at stake, this game might be one of the most compelling and overlooked games of the weekend.
Both the Beavers and the Bears enter the night in must-win situations. Neither is in contention for the Rose Bowl, but both are playing for the chance to go to a bowl. Cal and Oregon State both sport four-win records, meaning each need two more wins to become bowl-eligible. And with difficult closing schedules for both of them, the two teams are looking at the other as a chance to cement a crucial fifth win and take one more step toward postseason football.
It won’t be easy for either of them. Some advanced metrics favor Oregon State, while others pick Cal as the stronger team. For what it’s worth, Vegas has the Beavers as a 4.5-point favorite.
Oregon State’s offense runs through Sean Mannion. The senior quarterback is just 191 yards shy of breaking the all-time Pac-12 passing record, and Cal hasn’t given up fewer than 240 to an FBS opponent all year.
Mannion is coming off of a junior season where he threw for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns, but this year, he’s been in somewhat of a slump. Mannion has seen a dip in yards per attempt, completion percentage and passer rating this year despite throwing the ball far less often. Last season he also threw more than twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, while this year, he’s only thrown seven scores in as many games with five picks.
The Beavers have run the ball more often this year, partially to be more in balance offensively but also likely due to Mannion’s regression.
“It is a more traditional offense,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes about Oregon State’s offense. “It’s going to be more of a pro-style, they don’t go fast, they huddle, a little bit more of a traditional-type offense.”
Part of Mannion’s regression has been due to the departure of Brandin Cooks to the NFL, who contributed over 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. The Beavers are still searching for a top option at wide receiver to replace him.
The Beavers are also banged up along the offensive line. But regardless of the exact cause, the passing slump has been the reason for Oregon State’s regression this year. Last season, the Beavers were 6-1 through seven games and were ranked. This year, Oregon State is just 4-3.
But like Cal, they are still in contention for a bowl berth.
Unlike the Beavers, the Bears are on the upswing, having already won three more games this season than last year.
Yet defensively, Cal has still struggled, especially against the pass. The Bears haven’t given up as many points as they did last season, but they are giving up 383 yards per game to opponents through the air — good for last in the country and 40 yards worse than the next-worst team.
“We’ve been playing great offenses back to back to back,” said linebacker Michael Barton. “So there’s always going to be type of issues, but as far as improvement, I think improvement’s been there.”
Part of that is because Cal’s offense has performed so much better this season that other teams have to throw the ball to try and catch up in games. It’s not all the fault of the defense. But still, it’s easy to see a scenario where Mannion reverts back to 2013 form and attacks Cal at its Achilles’ heel, potentially ruining the Bears’ bowl chances while he’s at it.